“I’m okay never to travel again,” I told my friends Hwee and Phil, who both looked at me in disbelief.
“Yes, and in four months, you will call us from Ukraine or something,” Phil said.
“My T-shirt is full,” I explained.
That simple white V-neck T-shirt appeared soon after I bought a one-way ticket out of Dubai in 2014, at the end of a three-year stint at the Middle East Broadcasting Centre.
I took off for Brazil without a plan. It was a hundred days before I would return to Singapore, after covering three continents and 10 countries, including Argentina, Spain and Morocco.
Along my journey, I made new friends and hit upon the idea of having them write their names on the five-dollar shirt.
The first to scribble his name was Fabio, a fellow photographer who hosted me in Rio de Janeiro, where he showed me obscure Brazilian beaches free of tourists while we feasted on empanadas stuffed with the juiciest crab meat.
Since the beginning of the circuit breaker period, many concerned friends have checked in on me, worried that I must be distraught by the travel ban.
Indeed, in the past few years, I often found myself spending 24 hours or less at home between flights, just for a change of clothes or camera gear.
But I have sustained the connections with friends I made everywhere from Latvia to Lebanon and during my three solo trips to Iran. I had also amassed friends in Dubai and Hong Kong, where I worked a total of eight years, before returning to Singapore for good in 2014.
Meeting people is the best part of being away and, somehow, they keep arriving on these shores to see me. That is why I do not need to go anywhere anymore.
By the time I finished my 100-day trip, three-quarters of one side of the T-shirt was covered with names.
I have reconnected with many of the scribblers. Each time, I will take out the shirt again and we scour it for the date of our first meeting.
“It’s travelled a lot, this T-shirt,” Fabio said as he signed it a second time when we met again in 2018, this time at Tiong Bahru Bakery.
After we spent the afternoon swopping disaster stories of airport sleep-ins (him) and the time when I climbed a mountain by accident (surprisingly, non-athletic me), I showed him Haji Lane.
My favourite thing to do when I travel is to meet people like Fabio – even if it is at a dodgy money-changer 10 minutes before my four-hour bus ride from Belgrade to Zagreb.
At the bustling bus station, a group of young men pointed at my bag, which was covered with patches of the names and flags of different countries.
“Where’s Syria?” one of them asked.
My heart leapt. “Anta suriyin?” I asked if he was Syrian.
His jaw dropped. Why would an Asian woman in the middle of Serbia be speaking Arabic, specifically the Syrian dialect?
I had learnt just enough words during my years in Dubai to break the ice. The next moment, he and his friends fenced me in with a hundred questions and also asked for a selfie.
This ability to break the ice and make friends instantly, which I developed while travelling, has also found me many fast friends at home.
At Marina Bay Sands MRT station two years ago, a stranger approached me for directions. I recognised the accent and kind eyes, so similar to those whom I knew so well in the Middle East.
After my five-line Arabic conversation did its magic, I found out that Ahmad, based in Kuala Lumpur, was a Yemeni engineer working on 5G technology and visiting his friend at the National University of Singapore.
The next day, I decided to show him Singapore and roped in a good Singaporean friend, Winnie, whom I had befriended in Dubrovnik.
A year later, I was in Kuala Lumpur to take part in ZafigoX, a travel conference for women, and I remembered Ahmad would be there.
I invited my junior college classmate, who was also based in Kuala Lumpur, along with his partner and my colleague. Ahmad invited three other friends.
Suddenly, we were a table of eight Arabs, Malaysians and Singaporeans scarfing down huge portions of curry at Madam Kwan’s before venturing into the night, which ended with us playing pool.
Who knew asking for directions would lead to all this?
Recently, a new friend I made in Lebanon marvelled at my openness. “You are so disarming and so open, without an agenda.”
But I do have one. Sooner or later, I am going to make a friend out of everyone of you.
I carried on the name-scribbling custom when I bought my apartment in Singapore.
Random dinners and loud get-togethers always ended with me shoving a pen into the hands of my friends. After a year, more than a quarter of my door has been covered with their nicknames and our inside jokes.
One very special couple who left their names on the door were Nicola, an Italian whom I met in Prague in 2014, and his wife from China, Luna.
“We are at the waterfall,” Luna said on the telephone three years ago. They had just stepped into Jewel Changi Airport after an amazing year-long trip. Singapore was their last stop before heading to China.
“I’m so excited to finally meet Mandy,” Luna said.
Nicola said: “Me too. I’ve only really met her for two hours.”
It never felt that way.
I had reached Prague just before he took off for his summer holiday in Italy six years ago. He had given me the keys to his apartment and even the password to his iMac computer, after we connected on the CouchSurfing platform.
Through the years, we kept in touch. When I visited Bologna in 2016, I suddenly remembered it was Nicola’s home town.
“Is there anything you miss that I should eat for you?” I asked. He replied with a list of his favourite restaurants and a message: “I’m sending my best friend Giacomo to take care of you.”
Giacomo and his housemates took me to grappa-perfumed alleys, teeming with hollering locals.
There was no way I could repay Nicola. The only currency I have in abundance is perhaps friendship.
Besides offering my new apartment to them while I returned to room with my parents for the week, I also introduced my favourite people to them.
“We have made more friends here than the rest of the trip,” said Luna with an incredulous smile.
CIRCUIT BREAKER BIRTHDAY
There is always a time limit when you are travelling. You know you will leave eventually.
That is why you take chances. You tell the girl on the next bunk bed in the hostel something you may hesitate to share with someone in Singapore.
I have learnt to live like this, even when I am not travelling.
Earlier this month, I celebrated my circuit breaker birthday. Usually, I travel to a new country to celebrate, but borders were closing when I started my trip-planning in March.
I whimpered about my broken tradition. But staying home meant that my friends finally knew where to find me on my birthday.
And so they did, delivering everything from flowers to pastries. One friend even delivered Singapore’s best chicken wings, still sizzling, to my door, standing a dutiful metre away.
Another friend got our mutual pal, whom we affectionately nicknamed lemon cake, to bake me a lemon cake. By 3pm, I had enough food for the whole month.
That day, the almost round-the-clock and round-the-world Zoom calls filled me in on what had been happening in the lives of my friends.
Once Singapore went to sleep, the Middle East came to life, followed by cities in Europe, then Mexico in Latin America and, finally, Los Angeles in the United States. I had never seen so many of my favourite faces in one day.
On one call, I found out that the Indian flight attendant who lent me his jacket on a freezing trip in India had left the airline and opened a restaurant.
Friends in Italy survived the lockdown and will move to their new house soon. Mexico is running out of beer. The situation is driving everyone insane, but at least we are all going mad together.
If nothing good comes out of the pandemic, at least we have bonded even more.
“It took a global health crisis to finally keep you home,” yet another friend shrieked just before she left me with more food.
As I closed my door amid our peals of laughter, I saw my favourite people’s names on it and realised how many people have been to my home. Like my door, I open my heart readily to strangers.
“What are you going to do with your T-shirt?” my friends would always ask after signing it.
I declared that I would stop travelling once it was fully covered with names. Again, nobody believed me.
It started as a joke, but by then, I was starting to enjoy the “after-effects” of travelling so often – my friends look for me.
That is why I am not going anywhere. And my T-shirt is overflowing – just like my heart.
• After travelling a quarter of the world, Mandy Tay, a video creator who has worked in Hong Kong and Dubai for eight years and calls Iran her favourite country, is just as happy at home as she is globetrotting.
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